Something for the Weekend

Being a child of the Punk years I’m dubious about the idea that rock singers are poets, much less seers and gurus which the Hippies seemed to think about anyone who could string a sentence together. So I can’t tell you if Dylan “deserved” to win the Nobel Prize for Literature or not, but I do know that this is fucking rocking.

Next year’s lifetime achievement Grammy should go to Philip Roth.

Up Against The Wall

I like to think I have pretty wide-ranging taste in music and the older I get the less I care if something is “cool” or not. But I don’t think I’ll ever get old enough to completely lose the feeling there’s something wrong with liking anything that’s Hippie, Proggy, Folky, Soft-Rocky, or just generally made by people with beards and long hair. It’s like my teenage self is still lurking in my brain telling me I that didn’t live through the Punk wars to grow up with an appreciation of Fleetwood Mac.

This is partly due to reading the 1978 book The Boy Looked At Johnny by rock-journalism enfant terribles Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons at an impressionable age. Subtitled The Obituary of Rock and Roll, it had the same scorched-earth approach to Rock history they were famous for in the NME every week: demolishing it’s legends as self-indulgent wankers and posers, with particular ire directed at American bands and the Woodstock generation. In their world, almost everything that wasn’t Motown or the first two Sex Pistols singles was worthless. If Punk was a revolution, Burchill and Parsons were the loyal soldiers putting people up against the wall.

Written at the height of Punk and with the righteousness of young people (Burchill was only 19), the book opens with the line “Bob Dylan broke his neck — close, but no cigar” and goes on from there in an amphetamine-fueled rush of bile. The 1960s were “a decade of iron-lung dinosaurs washing their hands in the blood of teen idealism”, Jimi Hendrix was the hippies’ “Token Tom”, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop “closet cases fronting amateur-hour wimp bands”, Elton John a “fat old Tin Pan Alley tunesmith” — you get the drift.

But it wasn’t just the old guard that got knifed, the new bands they called the “pretenders to The Pistols inviolate throne” fared no better. Siouxsie Sioux was a “white girl high on fascist flirtation”, The Damned “a shoddy mob of burlesque queens”, Paul Weller “the Barry McGuire of Punk”, The Clash “pious mannequins”, and like all good British radicals at the time they really, really, really hated America, declaring “English Punk bands want to be the best — American punk bands want to be the richest”.

They also spent a whole chapter extolling the superiority of amphetamines over heroin, marijuana, and cocaine, because it is “the only drug that makes you sit up and ask questions rather than lie down and lap up answers”.

These days we’re used to this kind of provocative attitude-striking on the Internet. Some kid will proudly declare he thinks The Beatles are overrated — always ending with the smug flourish “There. I said it” — as if he’s committing a revolutionary act. But that kind of rhetoric bomb-throwing was fairly new back then, and matched the passions the music stirred up. It might seem very childish and reductive now, but was thrilling stuff when you’re 16 and I ate it up. They gave me the language to take the piss out of my Dad for liking The Eagles, and the attitude to sneer at the kids at school who were into Genesis and Led Zep. Most importantly, they gave me a finely-tuned bullshit detector when it comes to rock stars, and I still believe it’s the duty of the young to be skeptical about the idols of the previous generation, not revere them.

One of the few people to come out of the book with any praise is Poly Styrene who they say “was blessed with the finest imagination of her generation” — an opinion that is still true today.

Download: Oh Bondage Up Yours! – X-Ray Spex (mp3)

Attack of The Killer Veg

The young lady being attacked by what looks like a giant rhubarb is Nicole Maury in a promo photo from the film version of The Day of The Triffids. I haven’t seen that for years but I do remember it diverges quite a bit from John Wyndham’s terrific original 1951 novel which was a highly prescient story about genetically-modified crops getting out of control, while the film was your usual scary monster flick.

Man-eating plants might seem a bit silly but book and film did have some genuinely terrifying moments, especially the haunting opening scene of a deserted London which was ripped off by 28 Days Later. I also like to think it influenced Cerrone’s 1977 electro-disco masterpiece “Supernature” which is also about how messing with the DNA of fruit and veg could have bad consequences. It’s a strange subject for a dance record but that could be because the lyrics were written by an uncredited Lene Lovich which I had no idea about until I wrote this post and blows my mind a little.

This is the mega 10-minute version so it’s a big file.

Download: Supernature – Cerrone (mp3)

Fame At Last

Last week I finally got a copy of Bob Stanley’s epic pop history Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! and I wish I hadn’t taken so long about it. Not only because it’s a great book, but in the list of names acknowledged in the “Sources” section at the back was none other than ME! I was very surprised and, as you can imagine, well chuffed about that. Being in such a terrific — and possibly definitive — book is a real honour. Even my daughter was impressed.

I’m listed because I used to be a regular commenter at the Popular blog when they were covering the hits of the 70s and 80s. I don’t comment so much anymore because they’ve got to the point where I haven’t heard any of the records they’re talking about, but I still read it. Bob was obviously lurking around the site at the time, not only does he name-check it in his book, but Saint Etienne did a song about it on their marvelous last album Words & Music. Sadly I’m not mentioned in this though.

Download: Popular – Saint Etienne (mp3)

Where Have You Gone, Bobbie G?

I just finished reading Ode To Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, a new release in the 33 1/3 series of books. Straying from the template of most other titles in the series, it isn’t devoted to an in-depth analysis of Bobbie Gentry’s debut album but is instead an investigative biography of the reclusive singer who made her last album in 1971 and completely vanished from the public eye in the early 80s.

Murtha has done a lot of digging in archives and spoken to people who worked with her, but with such a big hole at the center of the story — Gentry herself — it has a Rashomon-like quality with people offering conflicting stories and opinions about the singer which only makes her more mysterious by the end. The only thing that seems clear is Gentry was something of a feminist pioneer: writing and producing her own records, and negotiating her own business deals (very successfully), at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman artist to do so.

It’s a terrific book full of fascinating trivia (I could do without knowing Gentry was a fan of Ayn Rand though) but sadly it can’t answer the really big question: Why did the driven, ambitious, and creative woman capable of writing beautiful songs like this just…quit. As Murtha says in the book, “Only one person knows, and she isn’t talking.”

Download: Courtyard – Bobbie Gentry (mp3)


One more from “Lost Worlds”:

“One of the great losses of the Information Age is texture. Consider the pre-computer desk: a litter of papers, large and small, handwritten, printed and typed, coarse and fine; letters in varying hands, envelopes of various sizes bearing stamps from all over the world. Here are books, annotated and bookmarked; here is a typewriter with its ribbon and its heavy steel frame. Here are photographs and drawings, coins and banknotes, documents bearing seals and counter-signatures, pristine originals and faded carbon copies, correction fluid marking the palimpest of human error, dog-ears distinguishing what has been well-thumbed from what has been largely ignored. Papers lie in piles, navigable vertically according to what has been most recently consulted; some are turned sideways-on to mark the stack. Boxes of note cards are neatly indexed; bundles of them, held with rubber bands, less neat but closer to hand; notes and memoranda are thumbtacked to the bulletin-board.
Now consider today’s equivalent. All is stored on the network and accessed via mouse-clicks on a clean glowing screen. Everything is the same: an image seen through glass. We touch nothing, mark nothing, smell nothing. In the new world of IT, it is not just the desktop that is a metaphor: everything is a metaphor, where nothing yellows with age and everything is clean and new. We have become creatures of sight alone, our whole attention focused on a hundred and fifty square inches of expensive glass.
We have lost something in the process. Not just texture. Something more. The computer makes everything retrievable but it doesn’t retrieve everything. Only the surface. Scratch that surface and — look! — more surface. The rest is lost.”

Download: Digital – Joy Division (mp3)

The Golden Age

Too distracted by other things to finish a proper post at the moment so I thought I’d go back to one of the original wells of inspiration for this blog: the book “Lost Worlds”, a compendium of vanished things written by Michael Bywater. Here he is on why nostalgia for our childhoods is such a powerful thing:

“Generations beyond number — certainly they were active when the Old Testament was being composed — have lamented that time when men were men and women didn’t mind; when the air was cleaner, people stood taller, children obeyed their elders, food tasted better, wine left one mellow rather than crapulous, flowers were brighter, rain softer, animals more obliging, harvests richer and a hazy mellifluous peace engulfed the living world…
Yet its location in time remains uncertain. Just as the garden always looked better last week, just as the orgy was always the day before yesterday or down the road, so the Golden Age occupies a strange, shifting region of time; the opposite of the phenomenon observed by authors, lawyers and software engineers, the Constant Time to Completion effect. The Golden Age is always, and has always been, a little before we were born; perhaps when out parents were young. After all, it’s they who spent our childhoods telling us how much better things were when they were children.
But here’s the secret. The Golden Age is always, really, us. It’s the memory of our own childhood. Not that is was necessarily wonderful; just that it was simultaneously us, and yet entirely foreign. Nobody can recapture how they thought as a child; how the world felt; how alert the senses were; how the world seemed to offer endless opportunity, unalloyed promise under the sun. The seventeenth-century mystic Thomas Traherne saw our lives beginning, as infants, in a condition of amazement, like angels; and so the Golden Age is the angelic infancy of the world. No wonder we yearn for it.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Literally. He’s a much better writer than me.

Those Spandau Ballet boys did some cracking 12″ single mixes during their own Golden Age.

Download: Glow (12″ version) – Spandau Ballet (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

Not being in the mood for anything new I re-read Jonathan Coe’s nostalgic novel The Rotters Club on holiday the other week. The book is set in Birmingham in the 1970s and one of the major events in it is the horrific bombings at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern In The Town pubs in the city which killed 21 people on one night in November 1974.

Two characters in the story are in the latter pub that fateful night and one detail Coe adds is that the last song playing on the jukebox of the Tavern In The Town right before the bomb went off was “I Get A Kick Out Of You” by Gary Shearston. I can only assume Coe made that up because I can find no reference to it anywhere else, but it’s perfectly feasible as the record was a big hit at the time, getting to No.7 in the charts the month before the bombings.

Though she already had a version of the song by Frank Sinatra my mother bought the record because she loved Shearston’s lazy, laconic take on it — complete with an acoustic guitar intro stolen from “My Sweet Lord” — which really brought out the urbane ennui of Cole Porter’s lyrics. Despite his Ferry-esque croon, Shearston (who died last year) was actually an Australian folk singer and this was a one-off novelty hit that he recorded for a lark. Part of the success of such an old-timey record was probably due to the 1970s nostalgia vogue when even Laurel & Hardy and Glenn Miller got in the charts.

This is one of the records that most reminds me of my mother so I was a little bothered by Coe placing it in the terrible context of the Birmingham pub bombings, as if he was messing with my own memories. But one of the book’s strengths is that Coe avoids the superficial, I Love The Seventies! version of the decade — nothing but flares, Glam Rock, and big sideburns — which a more obvious signifier of the era like Bowie or T. Rex would have been. Going with a forgotten one-hit wonder — and slightly cheesy one at that — can tell you more about the actual, ordinary reality of the 1970s than “Starman” does.

Download: I Get A Kick Out Of You – Gary Shearston (mp3)

PS: How nice looking was the Charisma Records label?

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com





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